On a Wednesday night in early April at El Club, I had one of those flashback-to-L.A. moments as I awaited the headlining act, the Latin funk band Chicano Batman. It’s a quartet of bilingual crooners that I’d more likely picture seeing in some intimate lounge in East L.A. than the Midwest.
Formed in 2008, the group catapulted into the role as a voice of resistance in the era of President Donald Trump when their bilingual take on “This Land Is Your Land” for a Johnnie Walker commercial became an unexpected hit just ahead of the presidential inauguration. They made a stop here as part of an international tour, coinciding with the release of their latest album Freedom is Free.
Part of me couldn’t help but think: “Since when did Detroit become a destination for touring Latino artists?” Then again, I had been having these moments of déjà vu with more frequency lately, so maybe this was part of a larger trend.
I caught that feeling last fall when the international sensation bubblegum synth-pop group Belanova out of Guadalajara graced the same stage for a near-capacity crowd. Before that, Mexican power rockers Molotov also made a Detroit pit stop.
Perhaps these names don’t resonate with typical Detroit music aficionados, but they do if you grew up in a Latino household. That we in the Motor City are increasingly seeing these names on a local club’s marquee proves that Latinos in the Heartland are hungry for a sound that celebrates their duality.
And the sound isn’t just coming from international sensations visiting on tour.
On the city’s southwest side, an emerging music scene — driven by a generation of polyglot Latino Americans — is redefining what Motown sounds like, and it’s decidedly en español.
The most well-known of such bands is Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas, headed by Hernandez — herself a Detroiter of Mexican and Cuban heritage — and bandmates Michael Krygier, Steve Lehane, Taylor Pierson, John Raleeh, and Stephen Stetson.
Since the band debuted in 2009, their sound has been described as ska-esque and bluesy, but up until this year, Hernandez sang all in English.
With the June release of their second album Telephone/Telefono, though, Hernandez & the Deltas chose to infuse Spanish into her lyrics.
The result is really two albums in one: one is in English and the other in Spanish.
“A lot of my fans are like me, proud Americans, but their parents are immigrants — from Mexico or Cuba or elsewhere,” Hernandez says. “Doing this album that’s influenced by punk and pop and all these other things, but then to do it in Spanish too [was] a way to connect even deeper with my fans.”
At the November Belanova show, she was among the hundreds in attendance and casually told me she would have expected a scene like this in cosmopolitan Mexico City — not her hometown — and where she spends a good deal of her time around other musicians.
It’s an experience common among Latino living in Southwest Detroit, where about 60 percent of the 8,200 households speak Spanish, according to statisticalatlas.com, created by Cedar Lake Ventures, which compiles in-depth statistical insight on U.S. cities using census data.
Fellow Detroit musician Caleb Gutierrez can relate to that duality.
Gutierrez’s self-described “Latin soul” sound has a distinct Motown influence, with his signature velvety voice reminiscent of a young Stevie Wonder.
He came up musically first through the band of his family’s home church, First Latin American Baptist on Fort Street. He entered the professional realm in 2010 when he joined The Infatuations. The group has won several accolades from the Detroit Music Awards and as a solo artist, Gutierrez has opened for veteran rock/hip hop legends Ozomatli and has sang the national anthem at Comerica Park every year since 2012.
Gutierrez says he hasn’t yet found the confidence yet to sing publicly in Spanish, though he would like to take the leap at some point.
“I think people are just expanding their minds to Latin culture,” he says. “They already know the food and ambiance of Mexicantown, but I think people are going to start recognizing the music as well. I think everyone is going to cross genres.”
Nationally, U.S. record labels are scrambling to tap into the Latino buying power, which in 2015, topped at $1.3 trillion, according to Nielsen. For the better part of two decades, Spanish-language artists like Shakira, Marc Anthony, and the late Selena all successfully crossed over into the English market. These days, it’s English language artists (Justin Bieber, for one) who are trying the opposite.
Locally, the fusion is well on its way to widespread recognition, though groups like the Detroit Music Awards has yet to recognize Detroit Latino artists as a self-contained category.
Gutierrez says he’s heard talk of a Latin category in the works among awards sponsors, but that there’s still the thinking that there aren’t enough local Latinos to fill out a whole category. “True,” he says, “but honestly I think Latino artists just aren’t being talked about around town.”
Gary Graff, a music journalist and co-founder and producer of the Detroit Music Awards, concurs that the quantity of Latino artists hasn’t previously been at the level to warrant a category of their own, but that’s changing. “It’s really a growing and emerging field and getting to the point, and may already be at the point, where there are enough artists to sustain a full category,” he says.
For now, Latin-style music falls into the “world” category. Graff says what the organization wants to be mindful of when considering a new category is whether the artist wants to be put in that box.
“We have to be careful that we’re not patronizing. … Someone like Jessica Hernandez, for example, belongs in the general rock field,” he says.
Even if Latino artists in Detroit are still catching their footing among non-Latinos in terms of exposure, fans of these artists aren’t waiting for others to define the scene.
Farther down West Vernor Highway from El Club sits the relative newcomer El Salpicón Night Club Detroit, a passion project of Mariscos Salpicon restaurant owners Esteban Perez and husband and wife Aldo Dominguez Perez and Yuriviana Angel.
It’s one of a growing number of spots where fans of cumbia, regional banda, and Pitbull alike can dance, without having to venture downtown, where this type of music isn’t as likely to get much airplay. “When you walk in, you don’t even feel like you’re in Southwest Detroit; it looks more like a club that could be downtown,” Perez says.
That it’s Latino-owned is an important distinction. As gentrification has crept its way into Mexicantown and is making its way west, so too has worry among residents who feel their concerns on how the neighborhood is redeveloped aren’t being heard. El Club, for example, is owned by Graeme Flegenheimer, a Vermont native who made a name for himself in his early 20s for opening a popular club inside a church in another Latino neighborhood experiencing gentrification — Highland Park in Los Angeles.
Flegenheimer opened El Club last year in a renovated space, formerly the Mexicantown Fiesta Center, owned by Dolores Sanchez (also editor of El Central newspaper). He brought on veteran booker Virginia Benson to bring nationally and locally known talent catering to English and Spanish-speaking audiences alike.
In April, Flegenheimer announced plans to expand his footprint by rehabbing a blighted building next door to his venue into a community center and café and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the effort — much to the dismay of some area residents.
Among those put off by the announcement was Southwest Detroiter Gabriela Santiago-Romero.
It’s not that she’s not excited to see huge Spanish-language bands come to the neighborhood.
“More than anything, can we have a serious conversation about how much harder is it for a person of color to get these kind of opportunities?” she says.
That’s where venues like Salpicon differ.
The trio behind Mariscos El Salpicon started off as a food truck parked on Livernois in 2015. Within a year, they opened a brick-and-mortar space, featuring seafood dishes typical of the Mexican coastal state of Nayarit, where Dominguez Perez hails from.
This spring, the business partners took the next step with the opening of the nightclub in a formerly burnt-out building they restored themselves. During the neighborhood’s annual Cinco de Mayo festivities, the restaurant’s parking lot was transformed into an outdoor venue, where more than 1,000 guests enjoyed three live bands and baile folklorico dancers; Mayor Mike Duggan also made an appearance.
Esteban Perez says there are already plans to expand farther, outside of southwest — maybe to downtown or Ann Arbor.
More than anything, Perez says he wants to give Latinos more options to enjoy the type of music they listen to at home or have to travel great distances to hear live.
The native of Monterey grew up mostly in Southwest Detroit and a lived for a short time in the Chicago area, where Latin-centric entertainment can be found just about any night of the week.
Detroit will get there, too, Perez says, though it will be up to the residents to make it happen.
“I think we definitely need more exposure,” Perez says. “We went from being a very small community to rising in Southwest Detroit.
“Most of the residents are Latinos — Mexican, Guatemalan, Puerto Rican — we built up this neighborhood very well. It’s time for people to start knowing our music.”